Sweet Coumarin

Sweet Coumarin. You are for me the unforgettable and addictive smell of the end of Summer in Switzerland, when our farmers mow the green meadows to prepare the hay for Winter. Your sweet and intense fragrance is carried by the already cool evening air, together with the distant sound of the cowbells from the alpine pastures. What a nostalgic feeling!

Native of the Amazonian rain-forest, your name was first given by the indigenous Tipi tribe to the tonka bean tree (Dipteryx odorata), there called “kumaru“. The pleasing aromatic molecule found in high concentration in the beans was first isolated in 1820 by a German chemist who mistook you for another substance. A French scientist of the same period eventually found your true nature, and named you “coumarine” from where your English name derives.

Tonka beans can be used for cooking deserts. A crème brûlée flavored with tonka beans is a dessert made in heaven. (Lucky Dragon / Fotolia)
Besides perfumery, tonka beans can be used for flavoring desserts. The tonka bean crème brûlée is for me a dessert made in heaven. (Lucky Dragon / Fotolia)

Tonka beans are still today the major source of natural coumarin, even if the fragrant molecule is now largely synthesized in labs. The aromatic molecule of coumarin is found naturally in quite many plants such as vanilla, sweet woodruff, sweet meadow grass and in the Chinese cinnamon called cassia. Fruit seeds also usually contain some small amount of coumarin. The synthesized molecule of coumarin was first produced in 1868 and found its first use in perfumery in 1882 in the legendary Fougère Royale d’Houbigant.

The original Fougere Royale d'Houbigant from 1882
The original Fougere Royale d’Houbigant, 1882 edition.

China is the largest producer of synthesized coumarin today. This pure molecule is controversial in its use in food products, as it is also known as a powerful rat poison. Its toxicity for humans was never proven however, and small amounts are still very common in deserts and baked goods.  Cinnamon cassia, notably containing a high concentration of coumarin,  is a widely used spice in Asian cuisine, from curries to broths and desserts. It is also an important element in the Chinese medicine pharmacopeia.

Bison grass vodka from Zubrowka.
Bison grass vodka from Zubrowka.

I highly recommend to try, in moderation of course, the amazingly aromatic “bison grass vodka” from Żubrówka, with the emblematic blade of grass in every bottle: a pure and wonderful taste of coumarin!

Coumarin is widely used as a tobacco flavoring additive, especially in pipe tobacco, where its similarity with vanilla and sweet aroma makes it an all-time favorite for gentlemen and sailors.

Did you imagine that nine out of ten perfumes produced today contain coumarin? It gives a magic base note of fresh-mown hay and also serves as a powerful fixative. Coumarin is the first synthesized substance used in perfumery, before aldehydes and ketones. Researchers recently created a molecule chemically close to coumarin, called Tonkene, smelling practically the same, but with a lower toxicity. It is now gaining the favor of the fragrance industry.

The mainly masculine perfume family of fougères, invented by Houbigant, remains popular today. The basic fougère accord consist of coumarin and oakmoss as base notes, and lavender in the heart, and from there countless variations have been made.

My favorite fougères are  Tuscany per Uomo of Aramis, the luxury Tabarome of Creed, the fashionable line of Le Mâle from Jean-Paul Gaultier, the classic Azzaro pour Homme, and many others actually. Ladies will enjoy some distinct coumarin notes in Coco Mademoiselle of CHANEL and the young line of Lolita from Lolita Lempika.

If you are lucky to find Tonka Impériale of Guerlain, give it a try. This is for me the quintessence of the coumarin of tonka, expressed in a unisex perfume, simply marvelous!

Sweet coumarin my dear, you will always remain as the summer note of my childhood and the base note of my favorite fragrances!

 

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